Bamboo Bonzai

Making Bamboo

By Lou Burhart

Burhart Rods

I think there are two types of fly fishers. Those that enjoy the activity on a fairly well-balanced, rational basis they are very happy with a rod and reel one of each will do just fine they buy a handful of flies and go out and catch trout or bass or whatever.

Then there are the type 'A' s we can't just buy a handful of Blue Winged Olives. No, we have to count hairs on the right foreleg and blend a combination of 14 different natural and artificial substances to get that egg sac dubbing ball just right. We can't just buy a couple Cortland tapered leaders no, we need to buy 26 spools of monofilament and after sorting with a micrometer to insure that all the sections are within .0001" of formula, fumble with bloodknots to piece together 9 whisps into one perfect leader.

We can't just buy more rods and reels we need to scratch and claw and plot and connive and even then they are just not quite right. I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea!

I build bamboo fly rods because there are some things you just have to do for yourself.

I really enjoy fishing for trout, but like a lot of other folks, I don't need to catch trophy fish to have a good time. I really enjoy the whole experience. The scenery and serenity, the challenge and anticipation, the endless opportunity to learn more and more about what appears to be a fairly straightforward pastime. I enjoy tying flies, working with my hands to build landing nets and fly boxes and other simple things. And now most of all, I really enjoy building and fishing bamboo fly rods.

I have been trout fishing for close to 30 years now - started on the South Branch of the Au Sable River near Grayling Michigan 1969. I knew right away that I was hooked. What a great outlet for my somewhat obsessive nature.

I assembled my first fiberglass rod around 1975 and though that was pretty cool. From there I built another 40 or so glass and graphite rods until the spring of 1997.

Lightning struck.

I purchased a vintage Orvis Battenkill bamboo rod, followed up with building the Twin Bridge Midge - 6'6" 4 wt based around a Partridge blank (pardon me Mr. Winston - there is also a Twin Bridge in Michigan on the North Branch of the Au Sable system). But I still wasn't quite finished. I knew that my days of Hi Mod graphite and high-speed casting were over, but I wasn't happy until the spring of 1998 when I MADE the whole thing.

Fishing around Grayling Michigan is really outstanding not only because of the rivers but also because of the people. One of which is Mr. Wayne Cattanach - many of you know him from the Thursday night Bamboo Chat here on FAOL.

Wayne spends a lot of time around Grayling and conducts bamboo rod making classes next door to the Fly Factory. Wayne makes some truly excellent bamboo rods. I was lucky enough to be able to spend several days with Wayne over a few months time putting together my first rod, a 7'6" 4 wt parabolic action. Since then I have finished seven more rods (actually sold five), have orders for several more and hope to build about 273 for myself.

I was surprised at the ease of gathering the tools, building the planing forms, binder, furnace and dip tank that I felt I needed to do a first class job, and finally, pleasantly surprised at both the appearance and the feel of that first rod.

Someone once said, "Bamboo Rods are things which dreams are made of." To me, dreams are truly what separate bamboo from production factory rods. I don't claim to be an expert on fly fishing history, but I do love the feel of many of the vintage Dickerson, Payne, Paul Young, Winston and other bamboo rods I have held. I appreciated the history and dream of the prior owners and their joy and anticipation while casting to trout wherever they may have been. I dream of these master rod makers in their workshops and think they experienced the same anticipation that I do when they halved the culms and prepared to flame and split into the strips prior to planing. The end result is still weeks away and the anticipation is very high during these beginning stages.

Another aspect of bamboo rod making is the varied challenges you face during the process. Building a rod is a series of many different steps, each requiring unique skills. Splitting a 2 1/4 " culm into 24 equally spaced strips is great fun and really starts the whole process. After some early straightening, flattening the nodes and laying out the stagger, you pick up the plane for the first time to rough the strips into straight triangles - the beginning of the hexagon rod.

After binding the 6 strips of the butt and each tip sections, a quick trip through the tempering oven is needed to reduce moisture, relax the fibers and prepare the sections for finish planing. Now it gets interesting. After carefully adjusting steel planing forms to your desired taper, maybe the same dimensions used by these past masters mentioned earlier, you are ready to finish plane and scrape these strips into very precise tapered 60 degree triangles that will be glued together to form your bamboo blank.


I should point out that the size of the strips is the most critical phase of making a rod. The finished tips are .065" - .075" assembled - this means each of the six strips are half that size - thinner than the thickness of an old dime. If done correctly, each strip must be within .001" of each other. This is one-third the thickness of a sheet of newsprint. I find that during this phase some soothing music calms the nerves and helps achieve that Zen state necessary to accomplish this task - maybe some Hendrix or Willie Nelson.

Now its time to glue up, bind tight, and straighten again and one more trip through the oven sets the adhesive forever. A little sanding and a rod is born. The rest of the journey is pretty straightforward. After some lathe time to prepare the butt and tip sections for attaching ferules, turning the cork grip and preparing the butt for the reel seat you are soon sitting at the kitchen table carefully winding silk around the feet of the guides with a finished rod a mere few weeks away.

I like my rods glossy. This means that the spar varnish I use has to be applied very carefully in a totally dust free environment, the final challenge. This is accomplished by submerging the finished rod into a tube of varnish and then slowly lifting it out of the tank. This whole affair is located within an enclosure to prevent dust or evil insects from finding a sticky landing place. I was lucky enough to find a 14" diameter plastic sewer pipe to build my dip tank inside of. I was assured that this pipe had never been used for its intended purpose. It takes 3 or 4 coats of varnish to complete the rod and sanding between coats with 1500 grit paper is what produces a flawless glass smooth surface. A week or two to dry, a light clean up and there you go.

Some folks would think that this is a lot of work - sometimes painful and heartbreaking work - but not me.

When first you press the sections together, hold it and admire the amber glow of varnished bamboo. Then dream of all the times and the special places where this has happened before, and finally feel the line load the tip and hear the special sound of a hex rod being cast - It's the thing which dreams are of! ~Lou Burhart


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